When Green Products & Green Design Don’t Measure Up

Came across a post on AbbeyK’s on interior design blog that referred to this Interior Design Magazine article When Green Products Don’t Perform.

Non- or under-performing green product alternatives are a concern for every designer and specifier. I posed the issue to some of my colleagues and heard horror stories—bamboo flooring that comes apart in high traffic zones only after a couple of years, low odor and fast drying concrete sealers that do not adhere well and chip, scratch or stain easily, cork that fades relatively quickly under UV rays.

Failures such as these sour both the designer and client on green products and green design in general … we have found that it is incredibly important when a building is beginning its ‘journey’ towards sustainability that the first green products are successful.

My thought isn’t that this isn’t just a problem for designers, it’s a challenge for anyone interested in “going green” and promoting environmentally friendly alternatives. The green product is supposed to be “the good guy” – you want green products and green design to succeed. After all, you have to go out of your way to find and research green products, buy them, and usually pay more for them. Maybe you even tell your friends about them. To have them turn out to be a bust, well, it’s disillusioning.

So how do you prevent Green product failure?

The Interior Design article recommends you

  • Use green products in established categories and that have a track record
  • get “word of mouth” recommendations
  • request product testimonials from manufacturers
  • ensure proper installation & maintenance
  • try before you buy – ask for product samples
  • find a forum where green products are discussed, such as list serve Big Green

From personal experience and other research:

  • don’t use green alternatives where they won’t perform well
  • don’t go low end – “you get what you pay for”.

I would also suggest look for ratings and reviews on green products. If you are interested in trying green products, you are probably an early adopter and may well be the one writing these reviews … but they are out there if you look …

Do Blog Searches for products you want to try

You may stumble on a houseblogger who has tried it out and learned from the experience. Keywords to use would be the brand name and type of product. Then ask questions on the blog posts.

Visit Green Review Sites

The Green Home Guide offers editorial reviews on green products & services – “unbiased reviews and advice from professionals and homeowners like you”.

Five Limes – community / consumer reviews and ratings on green products and local stores and services.

Finally, back to the blog post that got me on this topic, AbbeyK makes a good point: if your green design product ends up in a landfill before it’s time, it “can end up not being green in the long run”.

Renovations can kill your relationships

Interesting story from MarketWatch, Blood, sweat and tears: Use caution when tapping friends, family for home-improvement projects, about the pitfalls of having friends or family do your major renovations. A botched job can mean the end of a friendship and then some …

More Home Improvement Scams in the News

Spring is scam time. Many state consumer protection agencies are issuing warnings to the public.

The Oklahoma Attorney General’s office is advising seniors to be careful of door-to-door home improvement contractors and loan schemes that require up-front fees.
Mallery Nagle, Edmond Sun

In Tennessee, the sheriff’s office has warned about traveling con artists being back in the area. They tend to drive plain, unmarked white utility vans. “They usually get out when the weather breaks, when they can get out and do the work outside …”, according to the sheriff.

“It’s not good work in that it won’t last,” Burns said. “They’ll mix materials together that the rain will wash away. They’ve always used diesel fuel to mix with silver paint to paint a barn roof. You can drive around and spot a barn roof, you’ve got silver and black streaks where the rain has washed it down.”

Burns says the same hold true for driveway sealer. “That’s what they do to make the material go further,” Burns said. “The diesel fuel will mix with the driveway sealer, and it looks good. It’s shiny and pretty, and you know, when it rains it’s gone.”

The Ohio Consumer Protection department expects to receive 25,000 home improvement scam complaints in 2007. Warning signs to look out for:

  • scare tactics – always get a second opinion
  • the bait and switch – beware the price that suddenly goes up
  • the “model home” discount
  • the “referral sale” discount – this is illegal in Ohio & other states

Read more at The Advocate, Newark Ohio.

Here is a great example of the bait and switch. You receive a coupon in the mail for a low price for duct cleaning but the actual bill is $1000 plus, usually for unnecessary repairs, such as claiming you have asbestos when it’s actually just fiberglass.

Another home improvement scam example? In this story, the scam artist posed as sales representative for a real renovation company; collecting money on behalf of the contractor without his knowledge.

For more info, see my previous post The Current State of Home Improvement Scams.

Post-Remodel Depression – the renovation’s over blues

You’ve heard of “postpartum depression”? Now there’s “post-renovation depression”, the big let-down you can feel after all the hard work is over.

Kevin White, a clinical psychologist in Providence, R.I., says that “acute depression” can follow the end of any major project. “It’s like an artist finishing a painting or a writer finishing a book.”
– Fred A. Bernstein, New York Times

In some cases, this is a natural outcome of the results of the renovation not measuring up to the fantasy.

“The light shines down in a way that makes clear that the backsplash tiles aren’t perfectly straight,” Toth says of her new kitchen.

In other cases, it’s about addiction … or becoming “renovation junkies”.

… have been renovating their Manhattan apartment almost continuously since they bought it in the early 1990s. One big reason, Dangle says, “is that I miss the process when it’s over.”

Read the full article reprinted on the OrlandoSentinel.com

For a less, ah, sympathetic take on “one of the newest side-effects of affluenza: post-renovation depression”, read Rich People Suffer Differently From You And Me on Gawker.com.

Contractors speak: why good help is hard to find

A while back I read an article on SFGate.com answering a question from a homeowner who was having a hard time finding a home improvement contractor. She was trying to get three bids with references, without success.

“While it sounds prudent, I live in Vallejo and I can’t get a single pro to come out to my house, let alone three of them. I have been stood up many times and have been disappointed with the few that have come out.”
Burnett Brothers Q & A, San Francisco Chronicle

The writers advised her to work her network (friends, family, coworkers, etc.). Then try local real estate agents, who usually have a stable of professionals to call on when getting homes ready for sale. Finally, they suggested checking out Angie’s List, an online home improvement review site that has been getting good publicity.

Their observations on the root of the problem:

In our minds, the cause of the dearth in tradespeople is twofold: the real estate boom and the lack of skilled workers — especially those willing to take on home-improvement projects. It’s simple supply and demand. Too many jobs are chasing too few workers. The good contractors can afford to cherry-pick, and you don’t want the bad ones.

Since then, they’ve published a follow up article with more suggestions from readers such as trying other websites, homeowner associations, the BBB (Better Business Bureau), and even the NARI (National Association for the Remodeling Industry).

The most interesting thing about this follow up, though, was the responses from contractors.

You know you’re supposed to vet contractors before you hire but did you know they also vet you?

Trust. If the contractor doesn’t think the homeowner trusts him, it will be an uphill battle to get the job done. So some will turn it down. Do you blame them?

How did they find me? Contractors trust referrals from people they know more than from the internet … just like you do.

I decided to do a bit more digging and found this thread on ContractorTalk.com. The question for discussion: Should homeowners have to provide references for contractors? “To find out if the Homeowner was a good customer, or a PITA or Deadbeat”. An interesting and insightful read, if you dare.

Multiple bid situations are not a desirable situation for a contractor. It takes a lot of time and effort to put together a bid … to not have a realistic chance of getting it. As one anonymous contractor said “why compete when the market doesn’t require me to?”.

Operating costs. Doing small jobs doesn’t make financial sense. And estimates aren’t really free. “The cost of visiting the job and performing the estimate has to be worked into the cost of the work”.

“Next, there is a cost to everyone from selecting the too-low price. The last thing you want on your job is a contractor who is not making any money. When people realize what they are doing isn’t profitable, they take all kinds of shortcuts to make up the loss.

“If you sound like you know what you want, and it’s a clear, straight-up process, a contractor will be much more likely to spend the time bidding and communicating with you because they know it is more likely to be a successful job.”

The last word from the Burnett Brothers:

The bottom line is to define and communicate the scope of the work. Change orders are expensive. And expect to pay a fair price. If you do this, you’re more likely to get a contractor to show up when promised, actually do the work you want and charge the estimated price.

Read more: Contractors weigh in on why good help is so hard to find on SFGate.com

DIY Part 3 – DIY Disasters – When Doing It Yourself Goes Wrong

When taking on DIY projects, one can’t understate the need to know your goals, quality level need to achieve,and to know your limitations.

A do-it-yourself project, when executed well, can save you money and give you tremendous satisfaction of a job well done. You did it! And it looks great …

But when a DIY project goes wrong, there can be any number of negative consequences, from minor inconveniences (no power? shower in the back yard anyone?) to being forced to move out while professionals repair the damage. Not to mention a negative affect on the value of your home.

By the same token, if you inherit a home that had extensive DIY work done, it may be wise to get it checked out by a professional. This news report describes how homeowners assumed their unfinished basement was good to go because it had electricity. Turns out the electrical work didn’t meet code, and their home could have burned down. Ouch.

Blame it on HGTV, where fabulous renovations seem to be conceived, completed, cleaned up and enjoyed in the space of half an hour. So seductive. If only it were so easy. It’s only after people get into it that they realize they’re in over their heads and need help.

So who would they call? Usually, a handier friend or neighbor. In the past, professionals often wouldn’t get involved due to warranty and liability issues. In addition,

During the recent housing and renovation boom, many contractors shied away from such jobs, too, because they were too small and could involve challenging clients. “If you come into a botched kitchen, you are already dealing with an aggrieved homeowner, and you are going to have to tell them that it is going to cost more than they ever thought it would,” says Paul Winans, a California remodeler and chairman of the board of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry.
Sara Schaeffer Munoz on RealEstateJournal.com

That was then. This is now. Increasingly, it’s a skilled professional who gives “DIY Support” or “DIY Disaster Recovery” as the case may be. Part of this is financial reality, part of this is embracing the fact that more and more people are doing it themselves in the last couple of years. Getting DIYers out of jams is a new business opportunity for skilled professionals looking to expand their services, locally and on the internet.

HomeFIXology is one of many handyman franchises created with serving the DIY disaster market in mind. Handyman Connection, on the other hand, views this as a “niche and growing market”.

On the internet, BobVila.com has a My Projects forum where DIYers can get help from others online. In the blog world, Master Electrician Wayne Gilchrist answers DIY questions on his blog and offers DIY support services on EZDIYElectricity.com (read my upcoming interview with Wayne in DIY Part 4).

Even HGTV is now capitalizing on this trend, with it’s new show “Over Your Head“, hosted by the noticeably photogenic Eric Stromer. An interesting turn of events. Each episode features a real DIY Disaster that is addressed by Stromer and his team. What’s really telling on these shows? That its frequently not the DIYer making the call for help. Oh no, it’s his or her spouse. What I call the “Honey I’m home – my god, what have you done?” effect. Sometimes people are in deep trouble and don’t really know it.

“Over Your Head” is currently looking for “frustrated do-it-yourselfers”. See this listing on Craigslist. You can also apply online here. Your DIY Disaster has to be of your own doing, not a botched contractor job; apparently they can tell the difference. Homeowners who apply and get the gig “will not be compensated per se, but they will receive professional services and additional materials needed to help complete their project”. Nice work if you can get it, and don’t mind wearing a little egg on your face on national television.

For those who have to pay, bringing in a professional contractor in to fix the mess may end up costing you up to 50% more, especially if there is structural damage to correct. If it’s something that can be done by a handyman, you should note that the average cost is around $400 – $500. For other types of projects or questions, you may only need support over the phone.

But there are other worries beside money for struggling DIYers. Embarrassment and a sense of failure. After all, doing it yourself is about feeling empowered, capable, and independent. Admitting that you need help is tough. It helps to know that the professionals who deal with these sticky situations are (usually) sensitive to your feelings. They know you “need a friend” and the knowledge, insight, and corrective action to get the job done, not a long lecture.

DIY Part 2 – Doing It Right & Avoiding Mistakes

Ok, so you’re ready to do it yourself. And do it right. As noted in DIY Part 1, DIY success depends on a lot of things, the most important being knowing your limitations. Remember, you are replacing a professional contractor who brings knowledge, skill, experience, planning, project management, the right tools and the right materials to the job. If you don’t have these things, then you need to figure out how to get them – fast – before you start.

Step 1 – Do Your Research

What does the project involve? Get a book or read articles on the internet – there’s tons of free stuff online. Videos too if you’re not a big reader. Talk to friends and acquaintances who’ve done it before. Or consult a professional. Or help out on an experienced friend’s project before taking on your own. Make notes.

Step 2 – Planning

What products & materials will you need? How do you use them? Again, research is needed. Maybe a day seminar or two at your local big box store. It’s important not to skimp on materials. Don’t use 1/4 ” drywall instead of 5/8 “. Use at least 3/4 ” plywood for subfloors. Cheap tile will probably crack. Don’t plan to finish your plumbing repair with duct tape – it will probably leak.

How much will it cost? Don’t underbudget. Figure out how much you think it will cost then multiply by 3. Include all the incidental items (nails, staples, tape) because they do add up. Plan on 15% waste on materials. The extra padding will give you a little room for the unexpected …

Do you have the right tools? Will they stand up to the punishment if the work is heavy duty? You may have to beg, borrow, rent or buy. This is a big one; if you don’t have the right tools, it can take you a lot longer to get the job done, and undermine your self confidence.

Do you need a building permit? This would be something you’d need to ask if you’re making structural changes to your home. You’ll may have to phone your city government’s building department if it’s not available on their website. It’s better to err on the side of caution and get the permit. An inspector can help you by ensuring the work is done correctly and to code. Also, if it is discovered later on work was done without a permit, you might have to rip it all out and start over.

Do you have a written work plan? Put together a checklist of everything you’ll need at the various stages to ensure your renovation keeps on track. You should also write down step by step the tasks you’ll need to do to complete your DIY project, including the specific order and “wait periods” (for things to dry, etc.).

Do you have a backup plan? Or resource to ask for help? Another big one. Make sure there is someone you can contact for help if you get in a jam. This could be a handy friend or family member, or a professional Renovation Advisor.

How long to finish? You need to set up a timeline or schedule, especially if it’s a longer project.

Step 3 – Prepare your Job Site

Do you have everything you need? Make sure materials are protected if you will be working outdoors. Make sure all the materials have arrived before starting.

Are you ready to work safely? Take all the necessary safety precautions. Don’t wear loose clothing or jewelry. Wear goggles when cutting or sawing materials. Turn off the main breaker when working with electricity. Don’t stand on the top step of the ladder. I know it sounds obvious but 164,000 people end up in hospital emergency rooms for ladder-related injuries every year for a reason.

Step 4 – Prep Surfaces (if needed)

If you are doing any kind of surface refinishing, you will need to prepped properly. Walls need to be cleaned, patch, sanded, and primed before painting. Wood floors, decks, driveways – same idea.

Step 5 – Work Your Plan

Follow the steps in your work plan. Make sure you take your time. Measure twice, cut once; it’s better for something to be too long (you can always trim it again) over too short.

Step 6 – Clean Up & Disposal

Dispose of any hazardous materials responsibly.

Step 7 – Relax and Enjoy

No instructions needed here :)

Home Improvement Contractor complaints down in NJ 2006

Is New Jersey tougher on contractors? New Jersey’s Department of Consumer Affairs has reported a 25% decrease in consumer complaints about home renovation contractors this past year. Why? While judgement is still out on this one, it seems that Jersey’s new Home Improvement Contractors Registration Act, which requires mandatory registration for access to work permits and operating in the home improvement business , may have been the key factor.

Read more analysis from Consumer Action at pressofAtlanticCity.com.

Read the original AP Article.

Home Remodeling Horror – 2 sides to this story

One of the underlying ideas behind RenoVine.com is that we all can learn from others’ home renovation experiences and especially their mistakes.

Here are 2 articles by Allan Drury of The Journal News about one such cautionary tale, in all it’s gory and unsettling detail.

“The dispute is a good example of the troubles consumers and contractors can face when a large-scale home renovation project goes wrong.

The consumer ends up with an unfinished house and little recourse despite having spent hundreds of thousands of dollars. The contractor can be stuck without an easy way to collect money he feels he is legally owed. If the sides go to court, they can be in for a legal fight that can drag on for months.”

Read In-house dispute costs everyone first and then Both sides looking back. The latter article includes timely tips for both homeowners and builders / general contractors that will help you avoid litigious outcomes like this one.

Two things jumped out at me immediately.  First, how the breakdown of trust and communication between the parties escalated the situation.  How much effort did the contractor put into managing the process and the homeowners’ expectations?

Secondly, how important it is to check references, and from a wide variety of sources. One positive recommendation, even from a “trusted source”, isn’t enough. Stay tuned folks ;)

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